JOURNEY’S END (2018)

March 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. R.C. Sheriff wrote this 1928 play based on his experience as a British Army officer in WWI. The play’s successful two year run led to a 1930 big screen adaptation directed by James Whale and starring Colin Clive – two legends of cinema who also collaborated on FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Now, exactly 100 years after “the Spring Offensive”, director Saul Dibb (THE DUCHESS, 2008) delivers screenwriter Simon Reade’s version of Sheriff’s story and a tribute to those who served in the Great War.

It’s the Spring of 1918 and a stalemate in the trenches of Northern France has occurred during the fourth year of the war. Fresh from training, a baby-faced Lieutenant named Raleigh (Asa Butterfield, HUGO) is assigned to a front line unit whose commanding officer is his former school mate, Captain Stanhope (Sam Claffin, THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY). The others in the unit include Trotter (Stephen Graham), who eats and talks incessantly to mask his anxiety; Hibbert (Tom Sturridge), who suffers from shell-shock; Mason (Toby Jones), the cook who brings subtle comedy relief: and Osborne (Paul Bettany), the heart and soul of the team.

Slowly cracking under the untenable pressure is Captain Stanhope. His coping method involves a problem with whiskey which drives his raging temper. That temper masks a not-so-obvious commitment to his men … men who walk on eggshells around him. Most of the movie takes place in the dugout over 6 days, and though the soldiers spend much time in a holding pattern, the battle sequences involve an ill-planned surprise attack on a nearby German hold, and of course, the famous battle that kicks off the Spring Offensive – a 3 month run that cost the lives of more than 700,000 from both sides.

With military orders such as “hold them off for as long as you can”, this is no romanticizing of war. Bravery and courage in the face of likely death are balanced with overwhelming human emotions. Confusion and disorientation abound as bombs explode in an environment that offers no place to hide or escape. The war ended later that year on November 11, and trench warfare would never again be the predominant strategy.

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A BRILLIANT YOUNG MIND (2015)

September 9, 2015

a brilliant young mind Greetings again from the darkness. Somewhat surprisingly, mathematics has been the basis for some pretty interesting movies, including Good Will Hunting and A Beautiful Mind.  Equally surprising are the quality movies with lead characters struggling with Asperger Syndrome or Autism – Adam and Rain Man, to name a couple.  Also fascinating, albeit in a different way, are movies that have depicted child prodigies or geniuses. Examples of these are Little Man Tate, Searching for Bobby Fischer, and Akeelah and the Bee. However, it’s this film from director Morgan Matthews that is the first I can recall to combine all three elements.

Mr. Matthews’ directorial resume is filled with documentaries and he brings that no-nonsense approach to this story based on the life of David Lightwing, a young math genius with Asbergers. Asa Butterfield plays Nathan, a boy whose only love is mathematics. He lost his beloved father at an early age, and has since not connected with anyone … even his most devoted and long-suffering mother, played by Sally Hawkins.

Nathan begins studying under Rafe Spall’s Martin, himself a former child math prodigy, whose struggles with Multiple Sclerosis act as a defense mechanism that prevents him from having any semblance of a well-rounded life. The two are a perfect match, and within a few years, Nathan is competing to join the prestigious International Mathematics Olympiad held at Cambridge. Martin has his own personal history with both the event and the team’s coach, played by Eddie Marsan.

The film does a really nice job of illuminating the pressures on both loved ones (parents, teachers, etc) and the prodigies themselves. It explores the question of whether being “gifted” is really a gift or a burden. This is brought to life through the performances of Butterfield (and his many pained faces), Spall (as a man searching for meaning), and Hawkins (as a mother who yearns for nothing but a flash of reciprocity from her son). Also effective is Marsan as the coach, and Jo Yang as Nathan’s Chinese study buddy.

It’s a very touching story, and easily accessible for those of us who fall a bit short of the genius level. It also takes a shot at explaining love in math terms – not something previously featured on screen. And finally, it has one of the most heart-warming and sincere movie hugs one could ask for. In simple terms, it all adds up to a fine movie.

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10,000 SAINTS (2015)

August 13, 2015

10,000 Saints Greetings again from the darkness. Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n Roll – not just a bumper sticker, but also frequent and fun movie topics. Throw in 1980’s New York City, some excruciatingly dysfunctional parenting, and the coming-of-age struggles of three youngsters, and you have the latest from co-writers and co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (the real life couple behind American Splendor, 2003).

Based on the novel from Eleanor Henderson, it’s a nostalgic trip with little of the positive connotations usually associated with that term. The surprisingly deep cast features Ethan Hawke and Julianne Nicholson (August: Osage County, 2013) as parents to son Jude played by Asa Butterfield (Hugo, 2011). Emily Mortimer plays Hawke’s new girlfriend and mother to Eliza played by Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, 2010). Avan Jogia plays Jude’s best friend Teddy, and Emile Hirsch is Teddy’s big brother Johnny. It’s an unusually high number of flawed characters who come together in a story that features some familiar coming-of-age moments, yet still manages to keep our interest.

The story centers on Jude as he comes to terms with finding out he’s adopted, works to overcome his less than stellar parents, and spends an inordinate amount of time finding new ways to experiment with drugs. One night changes everything as it leads to a tragic end for one character and pregnancy for Eliza. Ms. Steinfeld is extraordinary as Eliza and really makes an impressive step from child actress to young adult. Julianne Nicholson is also a standout, and Ethan Hawke provides some offbeat comic relief.

So many elements of 1980’s New York are included, and no effort is made to add any touches of glamour. The Tompkins Square park riots also play a role, if only briefly as the key characters realize life is just not so simple … a consistent theme for both kids and parents. The fragility of life is always an interesting topic, and the filmmakers bring this to light through some characters that we feel like we know – and wish we could help.

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HUGO

November 29, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. This latest from Martin Scorsese can be fitted with multiple labels and each would be correct: a tribute to the birth of movies, a case for film preservation, a children’s fable, a special effects/3D extravaganza, a family movie with touches of Dickens. Very few directors would tackle such an ambitious project and succeed in producing such a magical experience.

Based on Brian Selznick‘s (relative to the film giant David O. Selznick) children’s book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, this is a story of redemption and fulfillment. Asa Butterfield plays Hugo, made an orphan when his watchmaker father (Jude Law) dies in a fire. Hugo gathers up the project he and his dad had been working on, and  moves in with his drunkard Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone). They live in the walls of a 1930’s Paris train station and maintain all the clocks, ensuring accurate time for travellers. When his uncle disappears, Hugo carries on the daily mission unseen by passengers and station staff. He steals the occasional croissant and milk to survive, all while continuing the mission of repairing the fantastic automaton his dad salvaged. Hugo is convinced there is a hidden message from his father that will be revealed when the automaton is fully functioning.

 Hugo gets cross-ways with a station toy vendor named Georges, played by Sir Ben Kingsley. Georges is a bitter old man and has no time for Hugo the urchin. Chloe Moretz plays Isabelle, a ward unto Georges, and she and Hugo strike up a friendship. Hugo introduces Isabelle to the world of cinema … previously off-limits to her thanks to Georges. She returns the favor by awakening Hugo to the power of books in a store run by the mysterious, and always great, Christopher Lee. All this is happening while Hugo tries to evade the grasp of the oddly dedicated and slightly twisted station inspector played by Sacha Baron Cohen.

 The kids’ research and automaton revealed hint lead them to a film history book written by Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg). It’s here that they discover Georges is really George Melies, the famous pioneer of film who developed the first special effects and studio system. If you know much of film history, then you recognize Melies as the one who brought us the 1902 A Trip to the Moon. It is here that Scorsese delivers a quick recap of the origination of film, including the Lumiere Brothers, the famous clock stunt by Harold Lloyd and other silent film classics like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. The best portion is dedicated to recreating the creative community  used by Melies to produce films with his wife in a make-shift studio.

 It is here that we are allowed to remember just how magical movies can be and how the best ones fill us with a sense of wonderment. The lines between what we feel and what Scorsese is showing us becomes so blurred it no longer matters. As Isabelle is overwhelmed in the theatre, that same feeling sweeps over us. How interesting that Scorsese’s first special effects film features the man who originated film special effects. We even get a re-creation of the famous Lumiere Brothers’ oncoming locomotive clip that caused audiences to jump. We get it in 3D in Hugo’s own station!

 I have been extremely critical of 3D and its misuse in movies these past couple of years. It rarely adds to the movie and always dims the colors and brightness. Scorsese is a firm believer in the technology and set out to show what can be done and how it can compliment the story. While more impressive than any 3D since Avatar, I still have my doubts about the benefits. What I do know is that if you can overlook the story that drags a bit and the possibly unnecessary 3D effects, you will probably find the film to be extremely entertaining and fun to watch. Howard Shore‘s score plays a vital role and supporting work comes from Emily Mortimer, Richard Griffiths, and Helen McCrory. It’s not for the youngest kids, but it will make you feel like a kid … while reminding you that movies are the stuff that dreams are made of.

Note: with a budget of almost $170 million, there is almost no chance that this film turns a profit, but for full effect, I would encourage you to see this on the big screen.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can enjoy a tribute to film history wrapped in a family film designed to flaunt the power of 3D OR you have a pretty smart kid aged 8 or older who could appreciate the most impressive movie prop of the year (automaton).

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you lean towards a cynical mindset and are unlikely to open up for a big budget children’s fable making a case for film preservation

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